Newsnotes 2010 07

Notes On The News

by Gwydion M Williams

BP – Now It’s The Deluge [Gulf Oil spill]

Memories – Bhopal and the Torrey Canyon

A Rolling Stone Don’t Gather No Blame [McChrystal in Afghanistan]

Parliamentary Games and Kyrgyzstan

One Law For Laws [Parliamentary Expenses Scandal]

Cumbrian Rampage [Derrick Bird]

China Equalises


BP – Now It’s The Deluge [Gulf Oil spill]

All of the guilt for the Gulf Oil spill is being focused on BP, even though Transocean and Halliburton played a big role and might be guilty of the key errors. It’s suggested that BP being represented in public by Britons may have been the key error. Britons are frequently the suave villains in Hollywood films, and a lot of US thinking is very crude, unclear about the difference between fiction and reality. Or politicians know that the voters confuse them, which is the main point in a competitive electoral system.

BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward is the man in the firing line. I’ve seen it argued that he was doing a good job cleaning up the mess left by Lord Browne . Maybe Lord Browne was a kind of Louis 15th, leaving the disaster to his successor. But Tony Hayward was certainly the man who kept under-estimating the extent of the crisis. Presumably big oil-company bosses get away with it most of the time and he failed to realise that this time things were different.

The guilt definitely goes much wider than BP. This is implicitly conceded by the US authorities, who have banned all deep-water drilling. But now the courts are overturning the government’s decision. The oil industry wants to go deep-water because that’s the place big profits can be made.

The original accident killed eleven men but would have soon been forgotten if the blowout preventer had worked. This is a device that will seal the pipeline and stop any fresh oil coming to the surface. Some drilling rigs have two, for extra safety, but not in this case. Yet there was good reason to think that a blowout preventer was much more likely to fail in the unfamiliar environment of deep-water drilling, higher pressures and colder temperatures than the norm.

“Last year, Transocean commissioned a ‘strictly confidential’ study of the reliability of blowout preventers used by deepwater rigs.

“Using the world’s most authoritative database of oil rig accidents, a Norwegian company, Det Norske Veritas, focused on some 15,000 wells drilled off North America and in the North Sea from 1980 to 2006.

“It found 11 cases where crews on deepwater rigs had lost control of their wells and then activated blowout preventers to prevent a spill. In only six of those cases were the wells brought under control, leading the researchers to conclude that in actual practice, blowout preventers used by deepwater rigs had a ‘failure’ rate of 45 percent.

“For all their confident pronouncements about blowout preventers (the ‘ultimate failsafe device,’ some called it), oil industry executives had long known they could be vulnerable and temperamental.

“Rising five or more floors and weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds, these devices were daunting in their scale and complexity. There were hundreds of ways they could malfunction or be improperly maintained, tested and operated. Not only did they have to withstand extreme environments, they were relied upon to tame the ferocious forces often unleashed when drilling rigs penetrate reservoirs of highly compressed oil and gas.

“They were also costly to maintain. An industry study last year estimated the price of stopping operations to pull up a blowout preventer for repairs at $700 per minute…

“‘All subsea B.O.P. stacks used for deepwater drilling should be equipped with two blind shear rams,’ said the report, written by the SINTEF Group, a Scandinavian research organization that advises the oil industry and maintains detailed records on blowouts around the world.

“The agency made no such requirement. Indeed, it waited until 2003 to require even one blind shear ram. By then, the industry had already started moving to two blind shear rams — although industry and government records show that roughly two-thirds of the rigs in the gulf today still have only one.” [B]

Oil companies are always much more likely to gamble than play safe. Successful executives can walk away with tens of millions, even if they have to quit because of a scandal. Cautious sensible people don’t get the top jobs. And in the USA, government regulation of the oil industry was massively weakened under Reagan and his successors. The dominant idea was that government controls were senseless red tape and that private enterprise should be left to get on with ‘wealth creation’.

This approach – you could call it the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ – was floated in the 1980s. It happened at a time when the post-war Keynesian economic order was in difficulties – but also a time when there was a choice between fixing it and breaking it. Breaking it on the basis of faith in the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ was the basis for policy in the ‘Anglosphere’ under Thatcher and Reagan. Reagan spoke of the ‘miracle of the market’, a catchier phrase than the ‘Invisible Hand’ idea floated by Adam Smith back in 1776. The whole thing took the mainstream left by surprise, and left them wrong-footed. The main propaganda line was to say that this was a new version of fascism. The line flopped because it was obviously nothing like fascism. And remarkably, there was no coherent criticism of Adam Smith’s work – I had to write it myself, and unfortunately it has yet to get much attention.[A]

The ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ passes itself off as rationalism, a ‘dismal science’ based on rigorous analysis. Actually it isn’t. Utilitarianism – the notion of measuring social value in terms of units of pleasure and units of pain – is genuinely based on rigorous analysis, though it falls apart when you look at it in detail. But though most of Britain’s early 19th century Utilitarianism believed in the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’, they could never find a way to justify it. Accountancy includes the ability to do a rigorous analysis of which parts of a business are making a profit and which make a loss. But there’s no logical reason why individual businesses looking to their own profit should be in harmony with the needs of society as a whole. People suppose that Smith proved it, but actually he slips it in as an unproven notion in the complex analytical chapters of The Wealth of Nations.

A little-noticed aspect of the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ is that you shouldn’t actually need highly paid executives. If business people were really ‘led by an invisible hand’ without regard for their own intentions, then any idiot could do it. Of course this isn’t what the economists tell their bosses: all such off-message notions get ignored. There are people who actually believe that talented bosses are not needed, but mostly those who’ve never had to personally organise anything at all complex. Try it and you find how hard it is for most of us, and that just a few somehow managed to make it all flow smoothly.

Executive talent is rare, and a lot of it is about promoting teamwork. This is well understood by anyone who takes an interest in team sports. During England’s recent dismal football performance in the South Africa World Cup, it was said that England had eleven footballers whereas Germany had a football team. The blame normally falls on the manager, and rightly so. But it’s nothing peculiar to football, it applies in most areas of life, and especially business.

Before the rise of the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ in the 1980s, it was assumed that managers would be motivated by pride in their job, and by salaries that were above average but not enormous. The new idea was to give the most successful managers truly gigantic salaries, as part of a general raising of the status of a rich minority, people with annual salaries of 100,000 pounds or more. Even bigger sums could be gained from stock options, so the natural temptation was to neglect the long-term interests of the company and hope to have got out before anything too bad happened. Enron was an extreme case, involving accountancy tricks that amounted for fraud, but it was an extreme within a wider pattern. A pattern in which the rich have got a bigger slice of the cake, but overall economic performance in the West hasn’t actually improved. Impossible, according to the ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’. There is a fault in reality, please do not adjust your mind.


Memories – Bhopal and the Torrey Canyon

The oil industry has long been getting away with bad behaviour. Recently the Guardian reminded us of an accident that happened as far back as 1967:

“On the morning of Saturday 18 March 1967, the Torrey Canyon ran aground on Pollard’s Rock between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly. Over the following days, every drop of the 119,328 tonnes of crude oil borne by this 300m-long supertanker seeped into the Atlantic. Thousands of tonnes despoiled the beaches of Cornwall – and thousands more were propelled by winds and currents across the channel towards France.

“At the time it was the biggest oil spill ever, and the first involving a new generation of supertankers. Looking back, the echoes of the BP disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico are loud and eerie. The slick imperilled a beautiful and popular tourist region. Inertia and dithering were worsened by the buck-passing of multinational companies implicated in the mess. And no one knew what to do. Even BP was involved: British Petroleum chartered the vessel to bring crude to the oil refinery in Milford Haven, Wales. But the Torrey Canyon disaster is not just a history lesson; it is living proof that big oil spills plague ecosystems for decades. Forty-three years on, the crude from the Torrey Canyon is still killing wildlife on a daily basis.

“The Italian captain of the Liberian-registered Torrey Canyon was blamed for stranding the tanker on a well-known set of reefs. By nightfall, an eight-mile slick had slipped from its punctured tanks. The following day it was 20 miles long. In the past, tiny coastal oil spills had been cleaned up by mixtures of solvents and emulsifiers. These were called detergents, a deceptively cosy, domestic term for what were highly toxic chemicals. Within 12 hours of the spill, the navy tried to tackle it with them. Handily for BP, it manufactured these chemicals.” [C]

Why a Liberian-registered tanker? Liberia is not noted for its naval tradition, instead it offers lax rules and companies with no real connection can use it as a ‘flag of convenience’. This has got much worse since 1967.

Britain used to have a massive merchant navy, a navy that did at least as much as the warships to raise Britain from an offshore islands to a world power. The warships have been kept, the politicians see the usefulness of the Royal Navy in giving them standing in the world. Meantime the merchant navy was allowed to decay: there was commercial profit in ‘flag of convenience’ and in using foreign seamen at much lower wages. The ‘Theory of Transcendental Market Forces’ reassured any doubters that this would be best in the long run.

But at least in Europe and the USA, there is some compensation for the victims. It is otherwise in poorer countries. The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst-ever industrial accident, with thousands killed when a chemical plant leaked dangerous gases. The Republic of India has a legal system based on English law, which is also the US system with a few US peculiarities. It was originally designed in mediaeval times as an alternative to private warfare: it provides a forum in which rivals can clash without bloodshed and probably get a judgement based on their respective powers. Ideas of justice came later, and remain more a matter of rhetoric than reality.

“The people most responsible for the disaster in Bhopal were not in the courtroom today when the verdict against eight Indian employees of Union Carbide India Limited was announced. Union Carbide Corporation (US), its former chairman Warren Anderson, and Union Carbide Eastern have been refusing since 1992 to obey the summons of the Bhopal court and answer charges of culpable homicide. The evidence against them remains unheard. Instead the prosecution focused on the small fry, the Indian managers, while the case that they were ultimately carrying out orders that originated in the US has not been tried.

“This morning roads within a mile of the court were barricaded, public gatherings were banned, and police with batons were out in force. People who had waited 26 years for justice gathered in the streets to await the verdict pronounced on the Indian accused. Reports that all the defendants had been found guilty produced short-lived joy, but news of the sentences left the crowds shocked, disbelieving, disgusted, angry.

“The company fined $11,000 for causing the deaths of more than 20,000 people? That’s 55 cents a death. What of the quarter of a century of suffering endured by more than 100,000 sick survivors? Eleven cents apiece. As criminal damages go, never has a lower price been set on human life and health.

“As for the seven accused (one had died during the 18-year trial), they were fined paltry amounts and sentenced to two years, but of course they are already all out on bail. ‘It’s insulting!’ one Bhopali woman shouted. ‘They deserved death,’ cried another. But no one should have been surprised at the lenience of the sentencing. All of this could have been foreseen.” [D]


A Rolling Stone Don’t Gather No Blame [McChrystal in Afghanistan]

Former US Army General Stanley McChrystal was very popular with the Afghan President and other Afghans who depend on US military power. Not really surprising, he seems about as similar to an Afghan warlord as you could get away with being while remaining a US Army General. What is surprising is the way he and the Afghan war have parted company:

“There is still general bewilderment not only as to why a commander as senior and as central to the Afghan war strategy as McChrystal should have made such derogatory remarks in public about Obama and his colleagues, but also as to why he should have done so to a magazine devoted principally to pop culture and the music business. Since it was founded in 1967, Rolling Stone has prided itself on publishing long pieces of political reportage. Even so, you wouldn’t expect a gung-ho general to air controversial opinions to a generally left-leaning, youth-oriented publication.

“Interviewed by the New York Times in Kabul, where he is working on another story, Michael Hasting, who wrote the Rolling Stone article, confessed to being ‘amazed by it myself’… Hastings is a known sceptic about the war in Afghanistan, believing it can never be won, and not someone you would therefore expect to be trusted with McChrystal’s confidences.

“Yet Hastings was allowed a month of almost unfettered access to the general, without any ground rules about what would be on or off the record. Maybe the very flattering treatment McChrystal had hitherto received from the US media and a belief in his own indispensability as the chief instrument of Obama’s counter-insurgency strategy had caused him to lower his guard.

“Another factor in the affair was the Icelandic volcano, which saw to it that Hastings and McChrystal were cooped up together for a week in Berlin, as the general and his coterie waited for the ash cloud to clear so that they could fly back to Afghanistan. They seem to have been a heavy-drinking, convivial crowd; and Hastings said they grew more friendly as time went by – so much so that they actually suggested he join them on their trip to Afghanistan when they were finally able to fly.

“Whatever the explanation (and none seems wholly satisfactory), the general did vent his grievances over the conduct of the war in a way that so challenged civilian authority over the military that even McChrystal, when he saw the article, seems to have thought he could not survive it and so came to Washington with a resignation letter in his pocket.” [E]

I find it very hard to believe that a clever and successful US Army General would make such a blunder, if it was a blunder. If the man had concluded that the war could not be won – or at least not won without extra troops and political backing that he had been refused – then it would be a neat way out.

Or it could have been a loss of control, anything’s possible. But the point to understand is that the core of the Afghan problem is warlords, all else is secondary. After the Soviet withdrawal, their former allies were open to a deal with the USA, maybe similar to the sort of thing that’s happened in Eastern Europe with ex-Communists emerging as strong governing parties. It happened in Eastern Europe because they got elected and the USA mostly had to do business with them. (Some were destroyed in the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ that have gone on to blight democracy in general.) In Afghanistan things were simpler, there was a central government and a bunch of warlords and the USA sat back and let the central government be destroyed. Showed little interest when the warlords then failed to provide any sort of coherent government. The Taliban were a response to the mess that ‘liberated’ Afghanistan had become: the warlords were the problem and the Taliban were created as an answer.

Warlordism is an easy pattern to get into when the central government is weak. Soldiers take to it naturally, if not restrained. But Warlordism does not work, is totally futile and a cancerous growth within a military machine. Yet there seems no way to fix it. Nothing short of a radical rebuilding of society on the basis of a new set of beliefs, which is what Communism did in China and what Islamism may end up doing in Afghanistan and maybe also Somalia.

It’s absurd that Afghanistan should need foreign troops at all, it has immense numbers of fighting men who are individually formidable. But organising them into a competent army is another matter and so far has not been managed. The controversial Rolling Stone interview indicates that it is just not possible:

“Today, as McChrystal gears up for an offensive in southern Afghanistan, the prospects for any kind of success look bleak. In June, the death toll for U.S. troops passed 1,000, and the number of IEDs has doubled. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the fifth-poorest country on earth has failed to win over the civilian population, whose attitude toward U.S. troops ranges from intensely wary to openly hostile. The biggest military operation of the year – a ferocious offensive that began in February to retake the southern town of Marja – continues to drag on, prompting McChrystal himself to refer to it as a ‘bleeding ulcer.’ In June, Afghanistan officially outpaced Vietnam as the longest war in American history – and Obama has quietly begun to back away from the deadline he set for withdrawing U.S. troops in July of next year. The president finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he didn’t want.

“Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. ‘It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,’ says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. ‘This is going to end in an argument’…

“Even in his new role as America’s leading evangelist for counterinsurgency, McChrystal retains the deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter. To put pressure on the Taliban, he has upped the number of Special Forces units in Afghanistan from four to 19. ‘You better be out there hitting four or five targets tonight,’ McChrystal will tell a Navy Seal he sees in the hallway at headquarters. Then he’ll add, ‘I’m going to have to scold you in the morning for it, though.’ In fact, the general frequently finds himself apologizing for the disastrous consequences of counterinsurgency. In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. ‘We’ve shot an amazing number of people,’ McChrystal recently conceded.” [F]


Parliamentary Games and Kyrgyzstan

Parliaments were invented in Mediaeval Europe as a way in which the rich and privileged could sort out their differences without bloodshed. They were not intended as a return to Greek Democracy – which itself was ‘democratic’ in the narrow sense that power was supposed to be exercised by the entire body of citizens, many of them poor. No significant number of Ancient Greeks considered that women, slaves or resident foreigners had any right to vote or should be included in the democracy. Yet even this limited democracy was only one of several systems in Ancient Greece, and in the end lost out.

In both the USA and the French Republic, the Roman Republic was seen as a good model to copy. But the Roman Republic was not democratic, not intended to be. Voting was by classes, with the rich having a much larger share of power, no question of ‘one man one vote’, and naturally no votes for women, slaves or Roman subjects who could not somehow become citizens. A lot of power rested with the Senate, whose members had to have been elected to one of the important offices of state, but who then had a ‘job for life’. And it conquered an Empire without foreseeing the likely results: the beginning of the end was probably the decision to govern more distant territories as ‘Provinces’ with a single autocratic governor. The Republic invented a model for its own destruction

The New Right has muddled the matters of parliaments and democracy. In much of Europe, there was already some sort of parliament and the struggle was to democratise it. Most European states had a powerful parliament in 1914, and unfortunately they all went along with the Great War. The dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s were a reaction to the visible failure of the old system, parliaments that failed to solve urgent social problems. The post-1945 restoration of a parliamentary system worked as well as it did, because in those days most politicians had learned a lesson and ensured that public welfare was looked after. This lasted till the 1980s, when many on the right decided that fascism was dead, communism was fading and it was safe once again to start grabbing privileges for the strongest and most greedy.

That the current system fails to curb the rich is unsurprising. The USA was founded as a republic but not a democracy. The politicised role of the courts has helped the rich and privileged much more than it has hindered them. The complex balanced government was intended as a way in which the rich and privileged could sort out their differences without warfare. And failed: its own Civil War grew very directly out of party politics. Lincoln and the Republican Party had virtually no support in Deep South or Upper South, but were still elected by a majority of the much larger Northern population.

Looking at actual history rather than New Right Fairy Tales, the surprising thing is not that sudden transitions to parliamentary democracy fail, but that any of them succeed. Where the norm is multi-party elections, it is common for parties to emerge that confine themselves to the grievances of one community, majority or minority. It can also happen in long established democracies: it is happening right now in Belgium, which has been unravelling for decades and could soon split completely. Likewise in the Netherlands, an anti-immigrant party has made a big advance, becoming the second largest party with 27% of the seats. The recently-ended civil war in Sri Lanka was in part caused by sectarian Sinhalese parties growing and alienating the Tamil minority.

That’s the context in which to see the ethnic trouble in Kyrgyzstan. The Tsarist Empire had conquered a huge chunk of Central Asia, territories with a diverse population and no history of existing as nation-states. Most were speakers of a one of the Turkish family of languages, but a lot of these were too different for the various groups to understand each other. The Soviet state imposed a rough-and-ready political order and kept the territories peaceful for a long time.

“Right in the heart of this newly divided territory lies the broad expanse of the Ferghana Valley.

“It is not really a valley, more a large fertile basin, 300km (185 miles) long, by 70km (45 miles) wide.

“It is surrounded on three sides by high snow capped mountains: the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) to the north and east, and the Pamirs to the south.

“The Ferghana is lush, its climate warm, its fields of rice and potatoes well watered by the snow melt from the mountains above.

“After the Soviet carve-up, most of the Ferghana ended up in Uzbekistan.

“But pockets of territory also ended up in Tajikistan in the south, and Kyrgyzstan in the east.

“The cities of Jalalabad and Osh, with their large Uzbek populations, were left on the Kyrgyz side of the border.

“None of this was much of a problem as long as they all remained inside the Soviet Union.

“But the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 led to a rapid reassertion, some might say re-invention, of national identity.

“Uzbekistan built its new national myth around the figure of Tamerlane, better known as “Timur the Great”.

“Born in 1336, Timur conquered much of central and west Asia, and built an empire that stretched from the Indus River to the Black Sea coast.

“Kyrgyzstan’s national myth is built around a much less well know figure: Manas. He is the hero of an epic poem, claimed by some to be 1,000 years old and the longest ever written.

“Whether Manas actually ever existed is a rather moot point.

“Caught between these two newly assertive nation states are the peoples of the border lands.

“In 1990, as the Soviet Union teetered on the edge of collapse, violence erupted in Osh.

“The immediate spark was a dispute over land. But beneath it ran a deep current of ethnic tension.

“Uzbek community leaders wanted their own autonomous region in southern Kyrgyzstan, recognition of the Uzbek language and government jobs.

“To the Kyrgyz majority the Uzbeks represented a fifth column, intent on breaking away and joining newly independent Uzbekistan…

“It is not unlike what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. The police force and the ranks of the military are filled almost entirely by ethnic Kyrgyz. To the Uzbeks they are part of the problem, not the solution.

“This weekend’s referendum may help to bring stability back to Kyrgyzstan. A new government, with a popular mandate, can fill the power vacuum that has existed since April.

“But in the current situation it is easy to understand why the Uzbek population of Osh and Jalalabad wants a return of Russian troops.

“The old colonial master may have created the problem, but now it is the only one that both communities trust.” [G]

This BBC account blames Stalin and the Soviet Union for the way they divided up the mixed population, without actually saying how the population should have been split.

Community tensions and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are the norm when a modern society develops. People whose existence had been local see a wider world, but also see that they have a lot more in common with some of their neighbours, perhaps more in common with the dominant majority in a nearby state. People don’t live in neat ethnic blocks, they overlap. France and Germany quarrelled continuously over Alsace-Loraine until they resolved it by founding the Common Market and making the differences minor. But such outcomes are hard to achieve.

Democracy requires a ‘demos’, a population that views itself as a unity. One-party states are rather better at avoiding splits in the ‘demos’ than multi-party systems. Worst of all is a pattern in which the results of elections are not respected and it becomes a matter of who can get control of the streets of the capital. In Kyrgyzstan, the ‘Tulip Revolution’ of 2005 forced out an elected leader. His replacement was Kurmanbek Bakiyev, popular in the south of Kyrgyzstan and also elected. In 2010 he in turn was replaced by protests in the north, a ‘revolution’ not yet given a name, though I called it the ‘Hiccup Revolution’ and noted at the time that it was a mess. Sadly, things soon got even worse. Everyone now knows that elections mean little and need not be respected. I can’t see any sort of stable politics evolving.

It is of course true that the various elections were imperfect and may have been rigged. But if you’re hoping to build a new political system, you have to live with imperfections and accept that the result may not always be fair. The alternatives have proved rather worse.


One Law For Laws [Parliamentary Expenses Scandal]

With the Coalition proposing ‘Welfare Reforms’, we must assume that there will be more harassment of single mothers. Including harassment of those found guilty of ‘cohabitation’, having a man in the house while still claiming single-mother benefits. This seems to reflect norms that faded out in the 1970s, the idea that people went straight from being single to being married. The norm has now become cohabitation, a period of living together to find out if the couple are compatible by today’s much more individualistic standards. No one nowadays puts up with a bad marriage. No one should expect women on welfare to either remain celibate or to marry without a clear idea of what they’re getting.

That’s one set of rules. A very different view was taken by the Establishment when Mr David Laws [a Liberal Democrat MP] was caught claiming housing allowance for a house he shared with his male lover. If the man had wanted to keep his private life private, then he should not have claimed public money on a false basis. He seems to be a millionaire and could have done without.

On the matter of homosexuality, the political Centre and Right have been ‘Virtually Heroic’ on the matter, leaving it to the Labour Party to take the odium for partially normalising homosexuality among politicians. I would also have thought that electors had a perfect right to know everything relevant about their would-be representatives, and to vote according to their own beliefs or prejudices. But though democracy is declared to be a sacred human right, it seems not to be a sacred human right in the sense of letting the voters know the full facts when they might ‘do the wrong thing’.

Mr Laws has been described as clever. Clever enough to make a fortune as a banker and to retire at 28, going into politics instead. [H] Not clever enough to realise that he’d be ‘leaked against’ as soon as he got involved in anything controversial. The issue in this case may have been the raising of Capital Gains Tax, but it was foreseeable that something some time would come up.


Cumbrian Rampage [Derrick Bird]

A man enraged by life strikes out at those close to him, and also maybe at random targets. It happens all the time, though not often going as far as murdering a dozen people, as Derrick Bird did. But I was puzzled that anyone saw it as puzzling.

Humans are apes, but exceptional apes. We are the least selfish apes – the only ape species where a mother can get help with her baby from other females besides her own mother. [J] Fights between males and male violence against females and infants do happen, but less than the norm for apes and monkeys. And when we study the bones of our half-human ancestors, we find that they had much thicker bones and were presumably much stronger. So we have moved away from all that in the process of becoming human, even though it still happens.

Culture also matters. Britain has become both more violent and more selfish since Thatcherism, and the current policies of the Coalition are likely to take it further. The media inflate everyone’s expectations and encourages them to blame others. The bits and pieces we have been told about the final days of Derrick Bird do seem to fit the pattern.


China Equalises

China was weak and unable to modernise from the Opium Wars of the 1830s to the Communist victory in the late 1940s. During all that time, Western observers mostly said that things were just about to come right.

From 1949 China has been growing steadily stronger and more secure, while Western commentators keep predicting a disaster just about to happen. China gave up trying to please the West or copy the West, and was right to do so. Mao showed that China need not depend on either the West or the Soviet Union, overseeing the development of atomic weapons and a space program – space programs and long-range missiles are usually two sides of the same thing.

Mao also shook up a stagnant and maybe decaying economy that was no richer in the 1930s or 1940s than it had been in the 1900s. The process was violent and sometimes damaging, but he left behind a China that was three times richer than it had been when the Communists took over. You’d not guess it from most current writing about China, but also no economic expert tries to deny it, they just evade the issue wherever they can.

Mao also began the opening of China to the West. It may well be true that only Nixon with his solid right-wing credentials could have made peace with Red China, but it’s also very likely that only Mao could have received him. Had Mao died while the USA was still pretending that Taiwan was the legal government of all China, who knows what would have happened next?

In the event, the left factions in Chinese Communism self-destructed, were not politically competent without Mao. Power passed to Deng Xiaoping, who opened up the economy a great deal more, letting in foreign firms employ cheap Chinese labour. It’s been called a surrender to capitalism, I called it that myself once, but a closer look shows something else. Land is nowadays worked by individual families but it remains state property. Most business needs government approval to flourish, which makes for corruption but also means that it stays under Chinese control. The currency cannot be freely converted, meaning that it is hard to pump money out of the country in the way that happens in a lot of African countries. Corruption tends to be ‘patriotic corruption’, with the money staying in the society and the general wealth expanding – much as happened in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or the USA when it became a major industrial power after its Civil War.

China has also for the last few years been striving to reduce the equalities that had grown up in the post-Mao era. China’s coastal provinces have always been richer than China’s west, which is mostly dry and lacking in good transportation.

The recent wave of strikes in China have been compared to the rise of Solidarity in Poland. But protests in Poland had a large nationalist element, a protest against being dominated by Moscow: China hasn’t been dependent on anyone since they broke with Moscow in 1959-61. Poland had run into an economic crisis and saw the prosperity of Western Europe: China is the world’s fastest growing large economy and sees the crisis of the rich world from 2008. So it all seems to be under control, as China’s own press correctly notes:

“There was once a time in China when migrant workers were labelled as “blind influx” (mang liu) or “vagrants” (liu min).

“When people moved from rural to urban areas in pursuit of a better life, they used to be derogatively depicted as migrant laborers aimlessly struggling for survival and bringing many problems to the cities.

“Now, with its migrant population topping 211 million, China takes pride in being a country where the free flow of laborers is preventing stagnation and transforming society.

“As indicated in the latest report released by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, migrant population makes up as much as 16 percent of the total, and is expected to double within the next three to four decades.

“The far-reaching effects of the successive and unceasing waves of migrants are evident in many aspects of life: They continue to propel the shift in China’s growth model, sustain the public interest in social justice and administrative efficiency, and spur the reform of the residential permit (hukou) system.

“Despite the wide-ranging impact, the implications of rapid mobility are not always positive.

“Fortunately, China’s massive migration has not given rise to clusters of slums like in India or Brazil. Nor has it encouraged the emergence of streams of deprived people.

“Instead, the pace of migration has always been carefully managed so that it is consistent with China’s domestic economic and social conditions. The interplay between policies of urban inclusion and waves of migrant workers has shaped numerous urban miracles that amaze the world.” [K]

“Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics maker, has accelerated its relocation of production to inland areas, a move analysts say is aimed at cutting costs following a series of employee suicides that resulted in the company doubling workers’ pay.

“The shift may also indicate a move by labor-intensive manufacturers out of prosperous coastal regions.

“The maker of Apple’s iPhone and other electronic gadgets is planning to relocate its massive factory complex in Shenzhen to inner cities where labor costs are relatively lower, while reducing the number of employees at its factories from 400,000 to 100,000, a company source familiar with the matter told the Global Times Monday….

“And some workers across the country seeking higher wages have increased their salaries by staging walkouts. Tokyo-based Honda Motors, for instance, announced raise 24 percent increase in pay for its Chinese workers after three strikes.

“Meanwhile, authorities are also helping push up minimum wages. Seven Chinese provinces raised their levels in the first quarter, according to the labor ministry.”[L]


[A] Adam Smith: Wealth without Nations, published in 2000 and still available.

[B] []

[C] []

[D] []

[E] []

[F] [] COIN is the current theory of counterinsurgency

[G] []

[H] Who Are the Liberal Democrats, Prospect July 2010, 1st column of age 33.

[J] There’s a good book on this: Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding: The Origins of Understanding by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy.

[K] []

[L] []

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